First up, let me just put it on record that the terms ‘parent-friendly’ and ‘workplace’ are antithetical by nature. Parent-friendly would be anything that would make my life easier as a parent . And one of the core requirements would be its ability to enable me to spend more quality and happy time with my child.
If you are an office-going parent living in India like me, you are probably spending 50 to 60 percent of your waking hours at work – and for six days a week, if you are really unfortunate. So simply by the ‘virtue’ (for want of a better word) of keeping me away from my child for 50 hours every week, I am in a relationship with my office; and it is inherently parent-unfriendly.
That said, just because the workplace has a default handicap, doesn’t mean that it cannot become more parent-friendly.
2017 has been a landmark year of all new, expecting and prospecting parents. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 has given at least the mother, a bit of reprieve in the form of 26-week paid maternity leave. Despite being a father, I’m not a big proponent of extended paternity leave. This is because I still feel that the Indian male needs to evolve more as a care-giver before staking claim to a 3-month or 6-month paternity leave. For starters, let’s just help the mothers handle themselves better, shall we?
It remains to be seen how effectively the Maternity Benefit Act is implemented, because it is a bitter pill for many employers to swallow. Quite a few employers and reporting managers (and considering the current gender ratio in the workforce, let’s assume that a majority are male) still seem to perceive maternity leave as a paid holiday. If you have spent enough time with a freshly consecrated, recuperating mother, you would know that it is anything but a joyride.
Now it would be unfair of me to paint all men and employers with a broad stroke. Despite working alongside a number of women and working mothers for close to a decade, I never understood the monumental fallacy of a 12-week maternity leave until I became a father. I am sure there are many men out there, who might not know much about maternity (or even menstruation for that matter). My hypothesis is that it is a result of generations of gender compartmentalization (where even husbands and brothers don’t know what is up with their wives and sisters) and taboofication and deification (at least on paper) of all things related to female anatomy. When you don’t understand something, you are either afraid of it, or worse, take it lightly. But I digress. There is enough fodder here for a separate blog altogether.
I also know of a number of progressive, smart organisations that proactively introduced a 26-week maternity leave even before it became a law. I use the term smart because many understand that this is not only a humane thing to do, it is also good PR. Being progressive and proactive, gets more brownie points on the ‘better place to work’ index, attracts more talent and helps retain them as well.
But an organisation cannot become parent-friendly simply by adhering to a regulatory act or by paying lip service to it as a PR exercise. The organization needs to be friendly across the lifecyle of a parent, and not just the beginning of it. What is required is systematic sensitization and compassion from the employer and the colleagues – and, very importantly, a responsible behaviour by the new-parents. So, on one hand, while the reporting manager must empathize with a paranoid young parent who is rushing home early over a sneeze that the precious bundle of joy just had, the paranoid young parent must also learn to stop freaking out over every sneeze. Because when you misuse or abuse the trust reposed in you, you not only provide disservice to your organization; you also give it one more reason to stop being nicer to more parents.